A recent study on sexual harassment in governmental and public sector offices in Cairo has revealed that 68 per cent of female employees have been harassed verbally or practically by male colleagues or superiors. The study was conducted by Cairo University Psychology Professor Zarif Shawqi and Assistant Professor of Psychology Adel Mohamed Haridi.
The study found that the temperament and behaviour of the harasser often follows a pattern. He has charming manners. He begins by expressing admiration and making complimentary remarks, and then asks for a date. He intentionally casts glances at sensitive parts of his female colleague’s body, sometimes touching them, and he may tell off-colour jokes.
The harasser is between 29 and 59 years old, is usually highly educated, has good relations with his superiors, and is usually a smoker. He also has a reputation as a regular harasser. Even though he may not be good looking, he is usually tactful, has a sense of humor, always tries to have fun with his female colleagues, has a strong personality, is not too devout and is sociable.
Verbal or practical
The researchers interviewed 100 women employed in Greater Cairo. Sixty-seven of them were married, 33 were single, and the average number of working years of the woman was seven to ten years. The direct superiors of 67 of the women were men. Twenty-seven of the women who had been harassed worked in managerial positions. As for educational level, 28 of those who had been harassed held intermediate education certificates, 32 had university degrees and eight held postgraduate degrees.
The women interviewed agreed that they considered some actions, when repeated, as sexual harassment. These included the deliberate holding of hands, touching parts of the body, looking at sensitive parts of the body, attempting to kiss, praising a woman’s body, and threatening or seducing her to have sex. Asking for dates and making risqué jokes came last in the order of harassment.
Surprisingly, 24 women said they did not consider that touching a part of the body was harassment, while 22 agreed that holding hands was also not an attempt at harassment. Twenty-seven said that attempting to kiss is likewise not harassment. The results of the study suggest that the concept of harassment has turned around to include the actual act of sex alone, thus leading women to have an overly tolerant view of harassment.
Of the 68 women who had been harassed, 31 had been verbally harassed, 22 physically harassed, and 15 were harassed both verbally and physically.
The bondmaid culture
“Harassment dates back to the ages when slavery was widespread,” Qadri Hifni, professor of psychology at Ain Shams University, told Watani. “Bondmaids were part of the master’s ‘property’, so there was no place even for the concept of ‘harassing’ a bondwoman. Harassment was a social sin only if practised against a free woman. Today, harassers tend to see women on the whole as nothing but bondmaids,” he added.
Dr Hifni calls for tougher penalties against harassers, and for replacing the current culture which sees a woman as a man’s property with one that respects women as the human beings they are.
According to Amina al-Naqqash, deputy head of the Tagammu party, incidents of harassment in Egypt have increased sharply over the past few years. “This is an indication of a severe deficiency in ethics and principles,” she says. Ms Naqqash believes that the decline in social and economic conditions is the major reason for the spread of harassment. Harassment, she says, used to be taken to indicate sexually offensive words alone; now it rather points to offensive acts and rape. “The ceiling for harassment has risen so sharply that verbal harassment is no longer seen as harassment in the first place,” she says. Ms Naqqash stresses that harassment threatens the very stability of the community, and should be criminalised.
“Harassment is an ethical dilemma that has spread because poverty forces people to marry at an older age. Their sexual needs are therefore pent up until they marry,” Shadya Qinawi, head of sociology at Ain Shams University, believes. Even though Dr Qinawi’s view is a widely held one, it does not explain, as revealed by the study, that most harassers are not poor; on the contrary they are well educated and more often than not they are married. “Sexual harassment takes place in public places and on the streets,” she said. “But when it happens in the workplace it carries the added threat of ‘bargaining’ with the female employee over her job or career.”